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1999 Beef & Bison Production Field Day


BISON PRODUCTION:

A RANCHER'S PERSPECTIVE

Peter & Beth Skedsvold, Alexander, ND

I first heard Dean Freudenberger speak in 1990. Dean, a 70-year-old agronomist and word authority in soils and agriculture from Minnesota, spoke on the past and future of agriculture in the Northern Great Plains. He also spoke on the changes that were beginning to occur. These changes included:

  1. Reductions in government farm payments;
  2. Increases in crop diseases due to monoculture cropping;
  3. Low wheat and cattle prices due to overproduction;
  4. Reductions in federal payments to state and local governments to support the infrastructure of the region (traditionally the Northern Great Plains receives more in federal payments than it pays in federal taxes);
  5. The population is working harder and more hours to make ends meet.

Dean then began to talk about some possible solutions to the problem. The one that made me start to wonder was when Dean spoke on how dryland acreage is better utilized as rangeland, thus reducing soil erosion and requiring fewer inputs when compared to crop production. When he spoke of the best animals suited to the region, he brought up the idea that indigenous animals are more efficient grazers and require fewer inputs and care. Bison were his first animal of choice. When I heard this, I began to wonder what kind of fruitcake is this guy? Initially I was offended by what he was saying. Being raised on a farm and taking part in 4-H, FFA, and traditional agriculture, Dean's ideas were out of the norm and seemed radical.

After about a month of thinking about what Dean had said in reference to indigenous animas, I decided to talk to a local rancher by the name of Ed Dahl. Ed had been farming and ranching since the 1930's and had purchased his first bison in the early 1970's. When I first talked to Ed he was hesitant. After finding out that I was sincere, he opened up and told me the reason for getting into bison. Ed's reasoning was that he wanted to retire and move to town, while at the same time keep his and generating an income. He said he had less expenses and more profit with the bison than he had ever had with beef cows, plus the bison were less work.

I then asked about buying some bison cows from him. His reply was a firm yes, but they would be back home by midnight. Ed said that bison have a very good homing instinct and that I needed to take his advice if I was to be successful. His recommendation was to buy yearlings and keep them confined in the corrals for a couple of months. By doing this and feeding them in the corrals, they would bond to the area and not require an "elephant" fence to keep them contained.

In 1992 I purchased 10 bison heifers and did as Ed had told me. I kept the beef herd, thinking that if the bison didn't work out, I would just sell the bison. After keeping the beef and bison side-by-side until 1998, I had my eyes opened as to how much less work the bison are. some observations I made included:

  1. Bison require less feed and care in the winter.
  2. Bison require less pasture in the summer.
  3. On some winter days, the beef cows would not come out of the pole barn to eat. Bison were out on the hills chewing their cuds oblivious to the weather.
  4. Bison did not "neck stretch" the barbed wire fences to get to the grass on the other side like the beef cows did.
  5. Bison eat for shorter periods of time than beef cows before they go to die down.
  6. Veterinarian bills for the bison were almost nonexistent compared to beef cows.
  7. Bison will walk further for water and will break through thin ice with their hooves, unlike beef cows
  8. Bison will utilize snow if water is frozen.
  9. Bison preferred old CRP hay to new alfalfa hay.
  10. Bison will respect an electric fence similar to beef cows if trained. (I converted an old 3-wire barbed wire fence by attaching one hot wire to the posts. The cost was approximately $100 per mile for materials).

This past year, while setting on the tractor planting, it came to me that Mother Nature is no dummy, and this last fall I sold the beef cows.

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